Marlowe Banks never dreamed that an MFA from Yale would earn her a job organizing hangers, picking crusted insoles out of an old pair of Top-Siders, and busting every last fingernail in an attempt to resize a watchband using only a safety pin and the force of her formidable will. The title Costume Production Assistant had sounded so glamorous. More commonly referred to as a PA, she was a cog in a machine. Nothing more.
“Just great,” she muttered as the safety pin slipped and blood beaded on her finger for the third time. “Amazing opportunity. Spectacular learning experience. Dream job.” The words strained to emerge but if she said them often enough maybe she’d start to believe them. After all, unambitious cogs didn’t have to watch reviewers and competitive industry professionals pick apart their creative work. They didn’t feel like imposters for calling themselves artists. In fact, most people didn’t even notice them, which was precisely what Marlowe had hoped for when she shelved her nascent design career in New York City and flew out to Los Angeles: city of dreams, sandy beaches, delicious tacos, and so many insanely beautiful people anyone ordinary was basically invisible.
The wristwatch finally set to the actress’s size, Marlowe began unpacking a large order of novelty socks, the next item on her list of Tasks No One Else Wanted to Do. As a lowly PA, Marlowe spent a lot of time with such lists. No one used that phrasing, of course, but everyone knew. She was slicing open the first box when the clatter of excessive bangle bracelets reached her from the trailer entrance, followed by sharp heels clicking on linoleum and the telltale aroma of sandalwood and well-cultivated disdain.
“How are we only on episode three?” Babs Koçak sank into a canvas chair beside Marlowe, turning toward the nearby mirror and smoothing out her perfectly arched eyebrows, jet black above slightly pinched gray eyes. She was petite in stature but large in personality, always impeccably dressed and coifed, her means of ensuring that others trusted her to style them. “I feel like I’ve been picking out velveteen blazers and silk boxer shorts since tyrannosauruses dreamed of kidskin gloves for their tiny hands.”
Marlowe fluttered a polite smile as she set aside the box cutter.
“Maybe it seems that long because you’re on season six?” she offered.
Babs groaned. “They were supposed to stop at five, but apparently if you put enough hot young actors on the screen, people will tune in until every last one of them has slept with all of the others.” She let out a put-upon sigh and smoothed the faintest of wrinkles from her crisp silk pedal pushers. “Did you get through those receipts?”
“All set. I left the invoice with production this morning.”
“Contact Calvin Klein?”
“The samples will be ready for me to pick up tomorrow.”
“Reschedule my chiropractor appointment?”
“You’re on for next Tuesday. Eleven A.M.”
“Find me a seaweed salad without sesame seeds?”
“Holy Rolls is making it to order. I’ll grab it at noon.”
“And Edith Head?”
“Is doing fine at the new doggy daycare. She’s even sharing her squeaky bone.”
Babs tipped an eyebrow and glanced around the trailer as if looking for something to criticize, having come up short with her initial inquiries. Marlowe continued her task at hand, sorting the socks with llamas and sloths from the ones with rainbow stripes or catchy phrases. The department had ordered almost a hundred pairs, though the chances that any of them would be seen on camera were about as high as tyrannosauruses wearing kidskin gloves. TV work was so different from Marlowe’s first few theater jobs, where the entire budget for twenty or thirty period costumes was less than the cost of this one sock order. She’d been on the costume team for Heart’s Diner for ten weeks now, so she was past the initial mouth-agape, Dorothy-lands-in-Oz phase, though sometimes she still half-expected a munchkin with a lollipop to walk into the trailer. In Hollywood, anything was possible.
“Are you really drinking that?” Babs asked.
Marlowe paused, both fists full of banana-print socks. “Drinking what?”
Babs nodded at a canned beverage on the counter near Marlowe. “It’s not even ten A.M.”
“It’s only sparkling water.” Marlowe set down the socks and picked up the can, searching for toxicity warnings or ingredients beyond the obvious.
Babs mumbled a vaguely disapproving hmm. “All that carbonation can wreak havoc on your digestive system. You confuse your body’s natural signals and next thing you know…” She mimed inflating like a balloon. “At least wait until lunch or dinner.”
Marlowe tucked the sparkling water can behind a pile of crumpled packaging, mentally noting that no self pep talk would make her situation ideal. Problem one: living in L.A. didn’t suit her. The city demanded an attention to brands and health culture, maybe not for everyone, but for anyone working in a fashion-related field, or at least for anyone working with Babs Koçak. Despite Babs’s frequent “helpful suggestions,” Marlowe hated gyms and she considered super foods decidedly un-super. Except for blueberries, and maybe broccoli, as long as cheese was nearby to mask its more viridescent qualities. She jogged every week so she wasn’t totally sedentary, but no sparkling water? Seriously?
Babs peered over at the socks Marlowe was stacking on the counter.
“I should’ve been more specific about the order.” She picked up a pair printed with cats talking on telephones. “Keep the stripes and general patterns. Send the rest of this nonsense back. We’re supposed to be in Middle America. Not Jumanji.” She examined a few more pairs while Marlowe started repacking the box. “Do you think Idi could pull these off with his McQueen suit?” She held up a pair with blue and black stripes.
“McQueen?” Marlowe asked, mouth agape. “Doesn’t his character work at a gas station?”
“This isn’t one of your little Chekhov plays, dear. This is television. People want style and glamor.” Babs tossed the socks aside. “You’re so new, but you’ll learn.”
Marlowe offered up her usual placid smile while noting problem two: the job. Not that being a PA on a major TV show was all bad. The pay was good. Marlowe was well suited to the tasks: organized, efficient, detail-oriented, and uncomplaining. She was effectively avoiding her harshest critics and those schmoozy opening-night parties where she never knew what to say besides, “Great working with you!” She even had celebrity gossip to sneak to her friends back in New York. However—and it was a big however—she hadn’t totally managed to shut down her designer brain and career ambitions. She had opinions about story, world, and character. She was bursting with thoughts on symbolic color palettes or ways to deliver information about alliances and antagonisms, sometimes by simply changing out a tie or adjusting the part in someone’s hair. But she’d come to L.A. to hide, and hiding required a minimization of opinions. Ditto for ambitions.
The trailer door swung open and Cherry Cho walked in, dressed in her usual uniform of tight black jeans, black designer blazer, and ironic T-shirt. Today’s logo read BINARY IS FOR COMPUTER PROCESSORS ONLY. She was slim and striking with long black hair she’d twisted into the kind of messy bun Marlowe often attempted but quickly gave up on, lacking Cherry’s ability to make “messy” appear intentional.
“I ran into Angus over at craft services,” Cherry told Babs. “He wants a word about his leather jacket.”
“What about it?” Babs stood, tugging the hem of her blouse, perhaps to straighten it, perhaps to reveal a hint of cleavage, a habit she often succumbed to when Angus Gordon’s name was invoked. “Isn’t it the same one he wore last week?”
“Apparently there’s an issue with the fit. Again.” Cherry rolled her eyes. “He’s been hitting the weights harder than usual lately. Now he needs more shoulder room. I told him the jacket looked fine but he demanded a second opinion.”
“How many leather jackets can one actor go through in a season?” Babs flicked a pointed finger at Marlowe and Cherry. “Don’t answer that. I don’t want to know.” She dabbed at her eye makeup and smoothed her hair before exiting the trailer.
The second the door closed behind her, Cherry crumpled to the floor, lolling about like a restless cat, one torn between stretching and going straight to sleep.
“I’m sooooooo tired,” she moaned.
“Work late?” Marlowe asked, still sorting the remaining socks.
“My ex finally came to get the last of her crap from my apartment. Should’ve taken an hour, two max. Then we got to talking, which was fine at first but before long we were rehashing every argument about my tendency to prioritize work and her jealousy issues and why the hell do I assume a woman I’ve been assisting for four goddamned years is suddenly going to recommend me for my own design gig but I can’t give up now when I’m so close to a big break and you’re deluded, no, you’re deluded, and next thing I know it’s six A.M. and we’re practically screaming at each other.” She yawned into a fist, long and slow, blinking through dense lash extensions before going limp again. “I’m making so many mistakes today. I don’t function on zero sleep. Something’s going to go horribly wrong and it’ll be my fault.” Never one to rest on ceremony about unnecessary conventions such as using chairs, she rolled onto her side and smothered another yawn.
Marlowe polished off her sparkling water while she could do so without censure.
“Anything I can do to help?” she offered.
“Any chance you can keep our friend Babs away from me today? She practically bit my head off this morning when I missed her text about picking up gluten-free, sugar-free scones with her coffee order. As if we don’t have a catering truck for all that.”
“Are their scones gluten-free and sugar-free?”
“Would anyone here eat them if they weren’t?” Cherry swiveled around and hauled herself to a seated position, darting a quick glance at the door. “Sometimes I swear Babs invents reasons to be pissed off, just so she can remind the rest of us she’s in charge. She was in our shoes once. Now it’s her turn to dole out pain. The film industry is basically an endless hazing loop.” She stretched her neck and danced her fingers along her spine, performing a self-massage.
At twenty-eight, Cherry was only three years older than Marlowe but she’d been working in the industry since she was eighteen: two years as a PA, four as a shopper and stitcher, and another four as Babs Koçak’s design assistant. As Cherry had explained to Marlowe, assisting was one of the best ways to land a design job. Not only did directors and producers get to know you, but if the designer was offered a film or series they couldn’t take, they might pass the job to their assistant. So far Cherry’s aspirations had proven merely … aspirational. Despite the long slog, and despite all of her complaints about the industry, she was determined to make it to the top. Marlowe admired Cherry’s drive. She also wondered how it reflected on her own.
She leaned toward Cherry and lowered her voice. “Do you think something’s going on between Babs and Angus?”
Cherry made a gagging motion. “God, I hope not. I mean, the guy’s a man-whore, so maybe, but she’s twice his age and he has waaaaay better options. I’m pretty sure the supermodel who snuck out of his trailer this morning was not the one I saw yesterday.”
Marlowe frowned in the general direction of Angus’s trailer, curious which girl—or rather, girls—he’d been pursuing most recently. He was one of six lead cast members, in his mid-to-late twenties with red hair too bright to be considered auburn and too dark to be called ginger, though it suited him by any name. He played the town bad boy, always getting into trouble, with a shady past and a hefty chip on his shoulder.
Of all the celebrities Marlowe had encountered over the past few months, Angus was the one her friends in New York had been most eager to hear about. She couldn’t blame them. She’d been curious, too. His face had been plastered on tabloids and film fan sites for years, first as a teen heartthrob from a popular Disney show, more recently beside a rotating roster of beautiful actresses. He had the kind of rugged, square-jawed good looks that made girls stammer and blush in his presence, centering him in countless fantasies. He’d even maintained a high position on Marlowe’s Top Ten Imaginary Love Interests list throughout her adolescence, and she’d entertained a few steamy thoughts back when Heart’s Diner first aired, but that was before she met the man and realized he was the most self-involved human being on the planet. Now she avoided him, which was easily done as a PA whose tasks seldom included direct interaction with the central cast.
Her phone buzzed in her back pocket. She pulled it out and checked the screen without opening it.
Kelvin: How’s La-La Land treating you, Lowe?
Marlowe’s frown deepened. Problem number three: loneliness, and its annoyingly frequent companion, regret. Kelvin’s question was innocuous enough but the nickname still tugged at Marlowe’s heart in ways she really wished it wouldn’t. Relationships were funny that way. People built a private language together. When the relationship ended, no one else knew the words and symbols so the language had to die, too.
Cherry clambered up and dusted herself off. “S’up?”
“Apparently it’s ex day.”
“He’s still texting you? He knows you broke up, right?”
“Yeah. No mixed messages there.” Marlowe tucked her phone back into her pocket. “We’re trying to work through the fallout so we can stay friends.”
Cherry eyed her sideways. “What, exactly, does ‘staying friends’ mean?”
“So far it means he texts me a random question every week or so. I answer, because I’m compelled by the gods of good manners to never ever leave a question hanging. Then I ask him a question. He does not answer it.”
Cherry leaned toward the mirror and prodded the shadows under her eyes.
“I hate that benching shit,” she said. “All those little feelers that make sure you’re still there if someone decides they want you. As soon as you give them even the slightest hint that they have your attention, they vanish. You should seriously block him already.”
“Maybe. I don’t know.” Marlowe wrapped a hand around her ring finger, twisting at the base, a nervous tic she hadn’t yet managed to overcome. “A few friendly texts won’t kill me. I miss him. And I still feel like an asshole for bailing the way I did.”
“So, are you staying in touch because you’re friends or because you feel bad?”
“Both, I guess?” Marlowe’s voice came out small and meek. She hated that.
“Just be careful.” Cherry spun around and leaned back on the counter, drumming the edge with her turquoise lacquered fingernails. “Make sure he’s adding something positive to your life, like actively making an effort to see that you’re happy. If he’s only making you unhappy, call People Disposal Services, stat.”
Cherry’s words hit home, calling into question Marlowe’s inability to let go and move on. She shifted on her feet as her phone pressed into her backside, demanding her attention. Scrambling for a distraction, she tidied stacks of socks. She’d barely begun when Cherry grabbed her by the arms and pivoted her toward the mirror.
“What do you see?” she asked.
Marlowe blinked at her reflection. Before her stood an awkward girl/woman, tall and angular with a reedy figure, a too-long neck, a too-sharp nose, and lank brown hair that fell almost to her waist as though it’d tried to do something more interesting but gave up in despair. She slouched, a habit she hadn’t shaken since she outgrew most of her classmates at age thirteen, even though she topped out at five-ten while a lot of the boys kept growing. She had a few lingering acne scars and she hadn’t yet succumbed to L.A. staples like eyebrow waxing and chemical peels. Also, she was clearly indoors-y.
“I don’t know what I see,” she said. “Someone still trying to figure it all out?”
“Fair.” Cherry stepped to her side. “But I bet you just logged ten things you hate about yourself instead of ten things you like.”
Marlowe cringed. “Maybe? How did you know?”
“It’s kind of your trademark. Also, it’s what the world teaches women to do. Take in the negative and ignore the positive. It’s bullshit, but no one can tune out all the noise. Besides, I think Kevin—”
Copyright © 2022 by Jacqueline Firkins